Smoke and bloodstorms.
The air was thick with smoke, sweat, and dust. Rubble formed meters away.
The sailors were forced to pull up their shirts to cover their noses as they stood still on the wobbly planks. No one really minded the fact that the ship was rocking like a cradle. Who could mind, after all? A city was burning to ashes in front of them, life obliterated, material things dissolved. Queasiness were the least of their problems.
Within the crowd of silent and gaping sailors stood a lady. Her hair was auburn like sea deep sea rocks, and her eyes brown like warmed wooden planks. She was young, perhaps a little too young to be crewing a merchant ship like the Kingfisher, but her heart was aged and blooming from seventeen years within the sea. She knew of comradeship and loyalty, of obedience and treachery, of life and death. Her seventeen years were not wasted—she had experienced many things that even adults were envious of.
Despite all that, though, Malaya, or Maya for short, had her cotton shirt up to her nose and her eyes fixed on Greencall. And like all the others, she felt numb.
A series of explosions were going off in the city, each one stronger than the last. Colors collided with one another like paint splatters, only, each brush stroke meant more than just the loss of paint. Whoever planted those bombs surely must not have been just a single individual, or at least that’s what the young girl Malaya, or Maya for short, would like to think. But if it was by a single person, then Maya applauds them. Congratulations! she thought sarcastically, You’ve spared no one!
Not a single house nor soul was saved from the ongoing destruction. Rumbles and shrieks pursued, but sometimes a dreadful silence. All traces of a thriving city were being blown away with each blow of the bomb—the two-story buildings were lessened to zero, docks were on fire, and the famous Greencall Convention was nowhere to be seen.
Smoke and bloodstorms, Maya thought again. Exactly what was a bloodstorm? She didn’t know, but perhaps what she was watching was a definition of it.
“I think it’s time we head on, men,” a gravelly voice said from the quarterdeck of the ship. “A tragedy this is, but not ours. Let us give our respects and condolences and move on.”
A couple of groans arose from the sailors as they trudged back into their stations. Some bowed their heads as a prayer for the destroyed city, while others could not even hide that they didn’t care. Maya couldn’t blame them. The seas were rough on the men this time of the year, and this city was the third they’ve seen get slaughtered by the Military Regime.
As for Maya, she was scared and pitiful. She didn’t know anyone personally in Greencall, but she might as well have. Her iron stomach wanted to hurl at the thought of thousands of lives, all swiftly erased like crumbs off a saucer. Her heart pounded with the force of tons with the anxiety she felt for the civilians and their lost homes and lives.
It wasn’t new that the Military was doing these kinds of things—they’ve starting doing so five years ago when they started overtaking the old Archanian government. Maya didn’t know much nor remember the small war that had taken place, as nothing ever reaches her out on sea, but she did know that there small wars were still insisting in the country.
Rebels would sometimes pop up now and then on the Kingfisher, and Mister Castel, the captain and Maya’s uncle, would have no idea. Only Maya and the other sailors would know since they go all around trading information. It was how Maya made extra money sometimes. She’d learn something from one man that she could exchange for stories from another, like where this man named Nehemiah was hiding in and who this soldier Isaac was.
“Malaya!” the gravelly voice from before called. “Stop gaping over there and get moving!”
Maya took her one last look at Greencall City. Mourning was something she respected. It was the only thing left to do for hopeless situations, and it gave closure, but too much could be of the opposite. She sighed and started walking back up onto the quarterdeck.
Mister Castel stood there with his back faced at her, his hands on the wheel. A big sundress hat—do not ask—perched on his brown mane, and his raincoat over his big bulky body. He looked crazy. But that was what made him the perfect captain for the Kingfisher.
Beside Mister Castel stood a tall paper stack weighed down by a small old anchor, a trinket that Maya once bought when she was younger. Maya knew what she needed to do the moment she saw those papers. She was the only one in the whole ship who could read, after all.
She sat down on the planks, took one of the hundreds of papers, and prepared herself to read out loud.
Although she was just a normal civilian who spent her whole life on the Kingfisher, she was lucky enough to have learned her letters from past passengers. She’d trade information for books, and kind souls would offer to teach her for free.
Mister Castel never had enough money to send Maya to land for schooling. In fact, Maya could not even fathom what immense amount of money was needed for school. Education was not something you could work and earn money for. Education was something you’d pay for with your already existing millions of dinoles. It was a stupid system built just so only the rich and the Archanians, they who already had everything, could be educated.
“To my humble Irvak Castel,” she started to read.
“Throw that one out,” said Mister Castel, “Anything with my first name in it is bad.”
Maya laughed. She always wondered why she never had her uncle’s sense of humor. Maybe her parents were dry people, but she never actually knew her parents for her to be sure of that. Mister Castel said that her mother travelled far with her husband. The couple went all around Osreon, enjoying their lives together, only to come back to shove a new-born Maya into Mister Castel’s arms.
With the way Mister Castel had narrated the story, Maya had to wonder if he hated her mother, his sister. “Mister Castel?” she said.
She shook her head. It wasn’t the right time. “Nothing. Just wondering if I should read the next one.”
“It’s not gonna read itself.”
She scoffed. She grabbed the next one. “To the Kingfisher. Around a hundred thousand dinoles await for you here at…” She wondered if she should continue. She did anway. “…Greencall.”
Her eyes darted to Mister Castel in apprehension. There was no reaction. “If you are willing to carry my goods. Meet me in the Convention, same time and same place. Yours, J.”
Mister Castel sighed. “Gods, rest in peace, Johan. Such bad timing.”
Maya quietly folded the letter neatly. It seemed to weigh more in her callused hands after she read it. She knew Johan. He was a regular at the Kingfisher, especially when he had illegal goods to carry. Although he wasn’t exactly the nicest man around and he was basically always under the influence of drugs, Maya felt a pang in her heart. Someone she knew, dead in a second, just like that.
“Mister Castel?” she said again.
She gulped. “Why does the Military do this? I mean, yeah, I know that they need to remove the rebels… but why go this far? The Archanian government never did that.”
A hesitant silence came before Mister Castel could answer. “Not all governments are built the same, Malaya.” He scratched his beard. “The Military wasn’t built to serve this country, I suppose.”
“They said they were here to protect.”
“Then bombing possible rebel cities might be their definition of protection.”
Maya thought about it. “Well, the Archanians weren’t much better either,” she muttered. The Military Regime did not bid well with her, but for her, the Archanians still were despicable people. They lied, stole, and deprived everyone of everything, and they can get away with it. Money and seniority does not make a wrong person right.
“Yes, the Archanians were wasteful and selfish people,” Mister Castel said. “But they didn’t kill people.”
“They didn’t kill people directly, you mean. I can remember a few towns we visited with starved civilians.”
Mister Castel sighed. He rubbed the back of his neck. “We’re not having this conversation. It’s bad for the heart. Oxford Bay is up ahead anyway.”
Maya raised one brow up in confusion. Greencall and Oxford Bay were near each other, but to have crossed from the first area to the next in such a short time would be a hard, almost impossible feat, unless Mister Castel really wanted to get away from the burning city. She thought that was the case, and she knew that it was not right to ask.
Instead, she stood up and stretched her arms over her head. The vast infinity of the sky appeared above her, showing off its blue, pink, and orange hues. Night was approaching, and Maya felt heavy. Every night has been a wonder to her with all the stars and the sounds of the ocean, but this time, right after seeing Greencall get bombed, she might be in for a darker experience.
She descended from the quarterdeck and walked toward the area of the ship where the bridge would be attached. The sails were fixed, the anchors ready, and the outline of Oxford Bay drew closer.
Maya’s heart knew that she was upset beyond reason, and her fingers knew where to look for comfort. She fished her hand into her pocket for the familiar engravings on something metal. The touch of it was warmed from all the hours it spent inside Maya’s trousers, and as always, the presence of it soothed her.
She brought it out. It was a small metal box the size of her fist, and it was her one possession, something she had since she was a child. Her parents had left it in her blanket when they gave her away to Mister Castel, and although Maya didn’t really care much for her parents, this metal box was the only thing she had to remind her that she did have parents, and that they wanted to leave something for her. The problem was that Maya could not open the box. It did not have any lock, and the lid connected seamlessly with the other parts, as if there was no lid at all. Maya would have destroyed the box to see what was inside, but the decorative engravings and the fact that it was her only valuable made it painful for her to do so.
Someday, she would be able to open it. She knew.
Maya looked ahead again. Oxford Bay was a small port town made for merchants, with small homes and big storehouses. She visited the place once a year, since it was where the Kingfisher could get proper repairs and where Mister Castel organize his regular dealings. It was a humble town, yet it was thriving with the latest Capital technology. Even from the Kingfisher, Maya could see the thick smoke that emitted from the prototype aeroships that were probably parked somewhere inside.
Although Maya was more of a water person, she would have loved to try riding the aeroship. Just imagine flying in the air, looking at the world from above. She’d love it, as much as she’d love being on the water. Land, however, was a different case…
The closer the Kingfisher sailed to the port town, the more Maya’s heart pounded. She was ready to leave the ship and relieve herself off the thoughts of Greencall, whatever it may take. Like she already knew, mourning too much bore too much of burden. There was nothing she could have done.
As soon as the Kingfisher arrived at the docks, the sailors rang the shrieking bells, and the town rang it as well. It was a cacophony of crows, but Maya was so used to it that she loved it. It was like a celebration, a thanks to the gods that they returned safe and sound.
“Everyone, thank the gods!” cried out Mister Castel from behind his wheel.
The sailors cheered.
“Thank the Kingfisher!”
They cheered again.
Sailors banded together to lay down a bridge for themselves. Before anyone could crowd it up though, Maya made a run for it. She was not excited or anything—she just wanted to be out of the gloomy ship.
“Malaya!” she heard her Mister Castel shout. “Be back before sunrise!”
She nodded as a response, although she doubted her uncle saw her.
The moment her feet touched the cobblestone ground of the docks, she halted in her steps and took everything in. Candy and horse manure scented the streets—not a good match, but livening after all the sea salt she was so used to smelling. Large and stocky wooden warehouses lined up in front of her with people bustling in and out of them, their brown cotton shirts soaking with sweat. The setting sun had drowned the scenery in pink and orange tones, making everything look calmer than it actually was.
Apparently, news of Greencall had already reached the area. People were running around spreading the news, and those who weren’t were standing still with tense expressions. Maya couldn’t even bear to look at them. Her heart wrung too much.
She walked away from the Kingfisher.
Deeper and deeper into town, she started to see that the warehouses were replaced with houses just as big, maybe even bigger. One building had seven big partitions in it, one each for seven families. Families in Oxford Bay tended to build their homes with others, thus making one collective buildings with partitions.
Maya wondered how anyone got any privacy if their homes were built like that. Imagine having to hear your neighbours argue about who was going to clean the toilets. Or where would they keep their money hidden. The idea was so humorous to Maya that she could not help but smile.
Maya was so distracted that she barely managed to stop herself before crashing onto another person. “Oh! Sorry!” she said. She looked up onto the back of a tall woman. There was no response.
She realized then that she was standing behind a group of people all clustered together to watch something beyond. Everyone’s backs were facing her, and everyone was whispering eerily to each other. “How scary…” one said.
“Unusual looks, huh?” another muttered.
“Sssh! He’s boutta speak!”
The crowd seemed to silence themselves as they intently looked ahead.
Maya knew that none of this was her business, but a question kept scratching itself into the back of her mind, something that would not stop unless she answered it. It didn’t take much self-persuasion for her to decide to partake in the awe. Her hands proceeded to politely push people out of her way.
“Excuse me…” she said as she squeezed her tiny self into the crowd. “Coming through!”
A scenario slowly revealed itself to her the more she wriggled her way to the front. Everyone may have muttered comments of annoyance for Maya’s shoving, but she was too curious to care. Soon, she was at the front of the crowd.
A man stood tall in a decorated circle on the ground, surely the town’s center. He wore what Maya got to know as the Military uniform—a black pleated coat with dark red and gold accents, along with matching pants. Maya always thought that the uniform looked like the scariest thing in the world, especially with all the wars the Military was fighting. They really did not mess around with spreading negativity.
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